By Laurie Balbo
Last year, Green Prophet broadcast the alarming news of a Saudi prince who poached thousands of protected birds during a 21-day hunting safari in Pakistan. Nearly a year on, the Sindh High Court has revoked a federal notification that allowed issuance of permits to Arab dignitaries for hunting endangered species – (including the houbara bustard, pictured above) – in the country. It’s a significant victory for the birds and the villagers who land they nest on.Every year, Arab monarchs, princes and sheikhs arrange for special licenses that allow them to hunt the endangered houbara bustard in Pakistan for ten days with a 100-birds-per-bag limit. Last year, 16 licences were granted, but the hunting party of Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud reportedly slaughtered 2,100 bird, more than the total number of licensed kills for the year.
The houbara bustard, locally known as Tiloor, was declared an endangered species in 1912, and Pakistan imposed a permanent ban on hunting the bird in 1972. The Sindh High Court had struck down the temporary licences for Arab royals in 1992, but the practice continued unabated.
The new ruling responded to a petition filed by villagers charging that the foreign affairs ministry had allocated different districts of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan to dignitaries of the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar for hunting protected animals. They alleged that a private department of Sheikh Nahyan bin Zayed Al Nahyan that organizes hunting on private property, working with local officials, illegally took over thousands of acres of land for the purposes of hunting protected animals such as the bustard, ibex, markhor, crocodile, and blanfordi sheep.
Their counsel also alleged that illegal acts had been carried out in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas. The petition asserted that local officials were heavily compensated by Arab dignitaries.
The federal attorney argued that the government could declare any area as a game reserve with hunting allowed via special permits specifying the maximum number of animals that could be killed or captured. The federal government, he added, could issue special permits to heads of Gulf countries and members of royal families. The hunters use falcons to kill the birds; special hunting permits also allow temporary import and re-export of the falcons.
This ruling – if enforced – is good news for wildlife conservation, but it was incited by self-preservation of a largely impoverished people. The villagers claimed they were prohibited from farming their lands and grazing their cattle from November 2014 to February 2015 to allow the Gulf royals to set up hunting posts and patrol the area in their vehicles.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources estimates the houbara bustards’ global population to be at 100,000, declining 20% annually due to hunting and habitat degradation. They are globally protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.